Friday, July 8, 2016

From Chilcot to ISIS

The bombshell in Britain in recent days has been the long-awaited (seven years in the making) report by Sir John Chilcot condemning Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Most Britons, like most Americans, have long since concluded that the invasion was a disaster. But though the report fails to assign legal culpability (which many Britons who lost loved ones in the invasion hope to get), it does roast former prime minister Tony Blair pretty thoroughly. It says, in part, that his

 “judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—WMD—were presented with a certainty that was not justified” and “Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated….It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged, and they should have been.”

It also explicitly condemns Blair (known in Britain as ‘Bush’s poodle’), for blindly following the lead of President Bush, citing a letter Blair wrote in July 2002 promising that “I will be with you whatever…” This constituted Blair’s only success according to the report, i.e., successfully appeasing George W. Bush.
            That the report took seven years to appear is in part attributed (by a 2003 report in London’s Independent cited in Alternet’s account of the Chilcot release) to a “fierce battle” waged by the U.S. State Department and the White House as early as 2003 to block release of the report because it allegedly contained “classified information.” Whether the release of the report in 2003 would have saved lives, either British or Iraqi, is not known, but it might at least have caused some re-evaluation of the Bush administration’s rationale for the invasion, which in turn might have led to Bush’s defeat in the 2004 election. Instead, of course, we got four more years of the worst presidency in history.
            If this were the end of it, the Iraq war blunder would still count as a horror costing millions of lives, but not as grave or extended a one as what it subsequently turned out to be. For the current plague of ISIS attacks in Iraq, Syria and now throughout the Middle East and the world, stems directly from the hubris and secrecy of the Bush Administration during that time. This is made clear in a recent (first aired May 17, and again, when I saw it, on July 5) Frontline documentary: The Secret History of ISIS  ( What the documentary reveals is how ISIS was able to thrive and grow through a series of blunders—mainly driven by “optics”—regarding its first leader, one Abu Musab al Zarqawi. We learn that Zarqawi was known to the CIA even before the invasion in 2003: according to Nada Bakos, a CIA analyst charged with looking into his background, Zarqawi was a tough kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Jordan, one who appeared on his way to a lifetime in prison as a thug, pimp, and general hardass covered with tattoos. But one stint in prison radically changed him: he became a jihadist, a holy warrior; and to demonstrate his zeal, he actually removed his tattoos by using a razor blade to cut off his outer layer of skin. After that, he left Jordan for Kandahar in Afghanistan, determined to join up with Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden ignored this wannabe from Jordan and in 2002, Zarqawi saw a chance to strike out on his own, this time in Iraq. He set himself up near the Iran/Iraq border and began building his den of crazies. Fortunately, the CIA had an informant in Zarqawi’s camp, saw him as a definite threat in the event of an invasion, particularly as Zarqawi’s group was apparently trying to build chemical and biological weapons. CIA analyst Sam Faddis, assigned to the case, therefore formed a plan to take him out, and forwarded the attack plan to the White House for approval.
            But the White House, in the person of VP Dick Cheney and his aide Scooter Libby, wanted no part of the takeout, especially before the big invasion, so Cheney and Libby drove to the CIA to undermine the CIA’s information. From their aggressive questioning, it was clear that the White House had more in mind than simply worry about a strike that might pre-empt their war plans. They had cocked up a narrative concerning Saddam Hussein’s al Quaeda connection and involvement in 9/11 as a big part of their casus belli. And when the CIA said there was no connection, it was clear that Cheney/Libby badly wanted there to be one. This would eventually lead to Colin Powell’s memorable speech at the UN, in which the Secretary of State besmirched his reputation by accepting the White House’s script—which he, uncharacteristically, read verbatim at the UN. And though the White House appeared to follow protocol by sending the script to the CIA for vetting, Nada Bakos testifies in the documentary that the White House simply ignored the CIA’s corrections and stayed with their required script. As Colin Powell authoritatively put it: 

“…there’s a sinister nexus between Iraq and terrorist networks. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.”

When confronted in the Frontline documentary about this clear fabrication in his UN speech, Colin Powell claims that his memory now is vague, but insists that his references to Zarqawi were unimportant to his general case. The truth is that a full seven minutes of the Powell speech were devoted to Zarqawi who is mentioned no less than 21 times, thus firmly connecting Iraq and Saddam to the terrorist network that had already attacked the United States on 9/11. Not incidentally, Powell’s speech also transformed Zarqawi into a major terrorist directing a worldwide terror organization. It is almost as if Colin Powell created Zarqawi, and ISIS, at that very moment.
            From this point, everything that the United States did played into Zarqawi’s hands. First came shock and awe, tearing apart a nation. Then came Paul Bremer, the moron placed in charge of the Iraq Provisional Authority, who not only dismantled the entire governmental structure of Iraq, but then fired the entire military, leaving some quarter of a million experienced soldiers without a job or means of livelihood. Zarqawi wasted no time in recruiting thousands of these Sunni ex-soldiers, and they today form a major portion of the ISIS forces. Even General David Petraeus testifies in the documentary that the effect of Bremer’s move was “devastating” and planted the seeds of the insurgency. Zarqawi’s attacks began almost immediately, with devastating car bombs that turned Baghdad and the rest of Iraq into a charnel house of raging sectarian war. That he planned to do this was clear from a letter Zarqawi wrote laying out his plans. He wanted Iraq torn apart by sectarian conflict, he wrote, that would leave it vulnerable to his more ambitious plans to create a caliphate. Bombing the UN headquarters added to the chaos because both the UN and all the NGO organizations that might have provided some protection and order, immediately fled Iraq.
            It was at this point that Nada Bakos sent a briefing document to the White House saying specifically that Zarqawi was responsible for the major attacks and was looking to foment a civil war. It got to Scooter Libby, who then called Bakos and summoned her to his office, clearly to pressure her to change her main conclusion, i.e., that there was an insurgency in Iraq that threatened the entire American project. It was that word, insurgency, that the White House found toxic. It implied that the Iraqi people weren’t completely overjoyed about the American invasion. Again, it was the optics that the White House wanted to change. So the White House, especially Donald Rumsfeld in press conferences, ridiculed news reports that only focused on the alleged chaos—which they vociferously denied. The denial, of course, made it impossible to combat the insurgency, which was allowed to grow unhindered.  
            Zarqawi made the most of such denial. He instituted a reign of terror that had never been seen before, beheading American Nicholas Berg on camera to establish his credentials as a slaughterer of epic proportions (one of his monikers was the Sheikh of the Slaughterers). And though even Osama bin Laden tried to slow him down, objecting to the killing of muslims by other muslims, Zarqawi’s response was to blow up the most sacred Shia site in Iraq, the Golden Dome of Samara. This was the final straw for Shias, and all-out sectarian war ensued—exactly what Zarqawi wanted. Shortly thereafter, he showed himself on camera firing an American automatic weapon to emphasize his power and ruthlessness, as well as  his plan to set up an Islamic state as the first step in forming a global caliphate.
            We know the rest. Even though Abu musab al Zarqawi was finally killed in a drone strike, his fiendish methods and plans have been continued by his even more ruthless successor, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. What’s most disturbing is that all of this—the destruction of Iraq in the first place, the refusal to take out Zarqawi when the CIA wanted to, the idiocy of disbanding and setting adrift a quarter million potential fighters from the former Iraqi army, the mania to sanitize and justify the whole bit of lunacy in the first place—all of it might have been prevented if saner heads had prevailed. But of course, that is what marks the late lamented Bush Administration: lunacy and hubris (and an optimistic savagery) from top to bottom. At this point—with so many lives lost or ruined, and the Middle East in unprecedented chaos—all we can do is hope we shall never see its like again.

Lawrence DiStasi

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